I need to start with a story that is not entirely relevant, although one part of it is. When I was in the Navy, I had occasion to deal with some devotees of an uber-dispensational Bible teacher named R.B. Thieme. That’s another story, with lots of juicy bits that came later. Another time maybe.
At any rate, their schtick was “sound doctrine,” and the sounder the better. I remember talking to one of these guys once, the kind of guy who might get up at 4 am every day so he could get a jump on his all-day task of sucking on a prune. Sound doctrine was the main deal, and I remember expressing some level of concern to him that love was getting lost in all of this. His response was to ask me if I could conjugate love in Greek. At the time I couldn’t, and later, when I had taken Greek, I could only manage it with beads of sweat on my forehead. So my love didn’t pass the conjugation test, but I still couldn’t help feeling that he was missing something more important than his raw propositionalism.
But even though it was an extreme example, the mistake being made here is a standard one. We consistently feel like love and truth are the opposite ends of the balancing pole that tight rope walkers use, which means that truth comes at the expense of love, and love comes at the expense of truth, and which way are you going to fall? If you had to fall, which way would you go over? He knew which way he was going to go over. But why go over at all?
As Dion puts this point in his great song about St. Jerome (The Thunderer).
Can’t get through life by just being nice,
Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.
Love without truth is just sentimental,
Truth without love is sterile.
This truth/love balancing point is fine as far as it goes, but the thing that trips us up is that we then tend to think that love and truth are discrete, simple things, like five pounds of love on one end of the pole and five pounds of truth on the other. In order to not “go over,” we have to realize that it is not quite that simple.
The fear of the Lord is to hate evil (Prov. 8:13), and this means that I can’t love without hating, and I can’t hate without loving. The basic divide is not “do you love?” or “do you not love?” Rather, the basic divide is “what do you love and what do you hate and why?” Ethics are governed by the direct objects. Do you love God righteously or the world unrighteously? And so at some point the fundamental choice always goes binary on you. This is because every human life is headed toward Heaven or Hell, and every conversation is an encouragement or a retardant in those respective journeys.
I love the sheep and I hate the wolves. I love the body and hate the cancer. I love the truth and I hate the lie. I love clarity and I hate murkiness. I love the sunny uplands of right reason and I hate the oobleckian miasmic pomo-fog.
I love it when the guys get up a robust game of pick-up basketball. I hate it when some feminist sues the gym for the right to join in, because she is tired of all these lame traditionalist categories, and then, without any self-awareness at all, limps off the court five minutes into the game favoring her left leg because she got bumped on the right elbow, and spends the rest of the year writing letters to various authorities about how “hurt,” “offended,” and “deeply concerned” she is about how “dismissive” everybody was being about her perspective on this unfortunate affair.
The right kind of love and hate does not cause you to lose perspective. Love and hate, rightly handled, will keep you from throwing all sense of proportion overboard. There are truths that are of primary importance, and truths that are of secondary or tertiary importance. It is my duty to love them all and to do so while ranking them all. Having done so, it is my responsibility to deal with others accordingly. To refuse to allow the Scriptures to have that governing role in your life is the fastest way to get pitched headlong into the seething cauldron of disproportionality, which, if you haven’t heard of it, is a bad thing.
Jesus did not tell us to go out into the world and find discussion partners. But He didn’t forbid it either. Sometimes we do find discussion partners (Acts 28:23ff). Other times we are filled with the Spirit and call people sons of the devil (Acts 13:9-10). The direct objects matter.
Jesus told us to declare, preach, announce — we were to play the role of a herald bringing a message from the great king. There is nothing wrong with discussions, of course, but when they displace the central means that were assigned to us — dogmatic, authoritative pronouncement, in short, preaching — then such discussions have become a great and enticing sin. Chesterton said the purpose of an open mind is the same as the purpose of an open mouth — meant to close on something. The perpetual temptation of eggheads, including the evangelical ones, is to treat every discussion as thought it were an academic one, governed by the assumptions of the most recently published catalog, and as though the point were only to keep the seminar discussion moving along.
The lines of antithesis are not like chalk lines left on the sidewalk after a child’s game, to use Van Til’s illustration. Those lines can be washed away by the next rain. The lines of the antithesis are two lines of generation, two lines of seed — the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent (Gen. 3:15). These two races occupy the same human history, and all is not well between them. The history of the world is Rebekah’s womb, and she picked up on the fundamental problem early on. “But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If all is well, why am I like this?”(Gen. 25:22, NKJV). The elder humanity is Esau, but the older will serve the younger — Jacob — and the meek will inherit the earth.
So if the concern is “to converse with a multitude of voices and perspectives, regardless of how much or how little I agree with them,” then this (at least as stated) is indistinguishable from classical liberalism. It is the “discussion imperative” which tends to ignore the reality of the antithesis that God established. Of course, conservatives have their own temptation also in this regard, which is to misplace the antithesis. Hard line sectarians have misplaced the antithesis. Goo-mongers and group-huggers are trying to blur or annihilate the antithesis (which is why they get so angry with those who contradict them on the point, because that forces them to articulate an antithesis). And in the middle position we often find well-meaning Christians, pulled first this way and then that one.
At the same time, like many dangerous falsehoods, there is a lot of truth in the idea that we should converse with a multitude of perspectives. That truth is necessary to practice, but also has to be kept within its appointed bounds. Artillery officers ought to listen to Navy men more than they do, and submariners ought not to give short shrift to the bomber pilots. All of them need to remember that they are fighting on the same side, and that they all have something vital to contribute. But they are also required to remember that there is another side, the enemy, the side they are supposed to be fighting. The duty of the Army and Navy to cooperate and coordinate together does not extend to the Army and Navy of the enemy.
This is why we must keep the matter of “being challenged” in perspective, which means keeping it in biblical bounds. If I am being provincial and sectarian, I think my platoon is the only true army. I really do need to be challeged by other faithful believers who belong to different battalions and other branches of service. This is the difference between catholicity and sectarianism. But if I am being challenged by the Tokyo Rose of the postmodern philosophers, then I am not being challenged — I am being seduced. I am not growing, but rather withering away.
And incidentally, the reason I am being ornery about such things is not because I have a personal need to fight with people, any people. I am being ornery about it because the contemporary evangelical and Reformed world is shot through with this kind of deadly compromise — as the controversies of the last several weeks have demonstrated. As I recently wrote to a friend, complementarianism is like a big country — soft and decadent — which means that it is a country that has its pacifists. We can let these guys drive the ambulances, but we cannot afford to admit them to our councils of war.
So this concern to “listen to multiple perspectives” is not really a concern that is being raised in any unique way by the coming generation. It has been going on my entire lifetime, and the same issues were being advanced and challenged in the early part of the twentieth century as well. This is a perennial issue; it is a constant. It has been with us since the beginning of the world, and it will remain until the end of it. We can’t make the antithesis go away — we can only seek to be faithful on the right side of it.
So it is quite true that some of my “call to battle” posts don’t seem to allow for a conversation. That is because, depending on the issue, I don’t want to converse — I want to fight. But I have a responsibility to refrain from fighting in other situations, depending on the nature and magnitude of the issue. If professing Christians deny the authority of Scripture, if they deny the creation order of human sexuality, if they think of the concept of the atonement as cosmic child abuse, that all truths are relative, and so on, then our duty is to expose them, fight with them, and contend for the faith once delivered (Jude 3). Jesus gave us His example on how to whack Pharisees.
But if they simply think we shouldn’t baptize babies, or they wear clerical collars, or they baptize with heads upstream, or they don’t sing songs older than 30 years old, or songs under 500 years old, and so on, then our duty is to love the brethren, listen carefully, pursue unity, and so on. Receive your brother, and not as someone to quarrel with (Rom. 14:1).
This explains my different approaches to the Rachel Held Evans deal and the Anthony Bradley deal. I have no business setting up amiable dialogue within the boundaries of Christian faith with some discussion partners who deny or subvert first principles in the way that Rachel Held Evans does. And I have every responsibility to pursue discussion with Anthony Bradley, despite his sin against me. Given what he teaches and what I teach, we ought to be in fellowship. But given what Rachel Held Evans teaches, I have a duty to not be in fellowship. If somebody arranged a discussion event with me and with her (which someone unsuccessfully tried to do), I would be happy to go, and moreover I would be pleasant throughout the entire event. But me being pleasant, however remarkable that might be, will not turn a mango into a pear, and will not turn feminism into Christianity.
Incidentally, this does not mean that I cannot learn from out-and-out pagans — I most certainly can, and I do it all the time. But when I am reading their books, for example, I never forget where I am, who I am, and where my loyalties are.
And this is the last thing — loyalties are shaped by understanding the story. This concerns those Christians I mentioned earlier who are in the middle, pulled this way and that. Such Christians who are instinctively protective of the wrong side in such controversies are obviously Christians, but they are (equally obviously) badly equipped for reading stories. The fundamental skill in identifying the antithesis in history (which is a story, remember) is the skill of distinguishing the protagonist from the antagonist. If you come out of Beowulf feeling sorry for Grendel, if you think Mr. Wickham was misunderstood, if you wince at the hubris when Aragon rides up to the gates of Mordor, if you come out of 1 Samuel thinking King Saul had a reasonable point, then you might think that this particular fight within the evangelical and Reformed world is a bad thing and a discredit to the gospel.